Over vocal objections from the public, the Maryland Transportation Authority's board voted yesterday to raise truck tolls at its bridges and tunnels on Interstate 95 and to impose a $1.50-a-month fee on its E-ZPass customers.
The board voted unanimously after hearing comments from Marylanders who turned out for a public meeting near the Key Bridge on the authority's proposed package of revenue increases - designed to make up for a shortfall caused by a drop in traffic that is part of a national decline in driving. About 30 people attended.
Opponents argued that the truck toll increases of 50 percent or more come at a time when many operators are struggling to survive the economic downturn. "It's devastating to our business," said Paul Kelly of the Maryland Motor Truck Association.
Others argued that the E-ZPass fees - and the authority's move to charge $21 for new and replacement transponders - would discourage participation and increase congestion.
State Sen. E. J. Pipkin, a Republican from the Eastern Shore, said the fee would fall hardest on the occasional user who might cross the Bay Bridge only five or six times a year. He said the action goes against the state's policy of urging people to get the passes.
"We've encouraged them to do it. Now we're hitting them with an additional fee," Pipkin said.
Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari, who leads the board, said members had found no acceptable alternative that would raise the money needed to continue the authority's maintenance program. He said the agency had slashed its budget as much as it could before proposing the revenue measures, which are expected to raise about $60 million a year.
Authority officials said they resorted to toll and fee increases only after deferring or eliminating $200 million in capital projects.
"These actions were taken after we made sure the authority had its house in order," Porcari said. "We're doing this very reluctantly and as a last resort."
The decision does not affect the base tolls for passenger vehicles, which have remained unchanged since 2003. Some opponents of the higher tolls said it was unfair to impose steep increases on truckers while sparing the family car.
"To put this entirely on the back of the three-plus axle vehicles is unreasonable," said Rick Rodgerson, logistics chief at GAF Materials Corp. in Baltimore. "The feeling is that you need to spread the pain a little bit more."
Authority officials said they decided to raise tolls on trucks so that they would more accurately reflect the wear and tear caused by the heavy vehicles. The truck toll increases take effect May 1.
Officials said the E-ZPass fees, which apply regardless of how often a motorist uses a toll facility, are needed to recover the cost of maintaining such accounts. Along with the transponder charges, they take effect July 1.
After the vote, trucking industry leaders expressed disgust with both the decision and the process that led to it. "They're not paying any attention to the trucking industry whatsoever," Kelly said.
In addition to the toll increases and new fee, the board also adopted proposals to increase penalties for toll violations from $15 to $25 and to add a service fee for notifying a motorist of a missed toll.
The revenue package also eliminates sales of discounted commuter ticket books. That would require customers who want commuter discounts to sign up for the E-ZPass program.
Also increasing will be the cost of vehicle decals for regular users of the U.S. 40 bridge over the Susquehanna River. The decals will cost $10, rather than the current $5.
In a gesture toward resolving a long-standing complaint by motorcyclists, the board also voted to charge all motorcycles the same rate as passenger vehicles - even if they have sidecars or are pulling trailers.
Previously, such motorcycles had been charged the higher toll that applies to three-axle vehicles.